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Do you live and breathe fine dining restaurants? Can you dine out twice a day but keep it a secret? Are you willing to travel great distances for your dinner and still remain focused on every detail? Then you might have what it takes to be a Michelin inspector.
From Switzerland to Singapore, the Michelin Guide has become an international benchmark for the quality of restaurant food. Millions of us turn to the little red book for expert guidance on the best places in the world to dine out.
Whether a restaurant has one, two or three Michelin stars, a Bib Gourmand or just a mention in the guide, a Michelin Inspector has visited it — often more than once, in secret and with the utmost scrutiny. Even street food stalls and food trucks are on their radar. It’s a tough job and somebody has to do it. But who?
The identity of Michelin inspectors is strictly confidential, but according to Rebecca Burr, editor of the Michelin Guide to Great Britain and Ireland, if you’ve got what it takes, it could be you.
“Traditionally we’d look for people with a professional background — hotel school or equivalent — and at least five or seven years in the business, ideally with some kitchen experience,” said Burr. “Other than that, we’re looking for characters that are extremely understanding, observant and passionate. And they must live it through and through.”
To make the grade, inspectors must be 100 per cent committed to the task of eating in restaurants. Sounds easy, but as Burr explained, it can be quite a challenge. “It’s every day. You are allowed another life and a family, but it’s gruelling. It’s lunch and dinner every day, and a lot of travelling.”
According to Burr, inspectors don’t have a specific region to cover; instead they are required to travel the length and breadth of their country, and occasionally abroad.
“We want to keep it varied for the inspectors, because if you’ve got Cornwall every year, as wonderful as that is, it’s not fair. So they move around all the time. It’s why people stay so long. It takes a good five years to be a good inspector.”
Among the key qualities needed to become a Michelin inspector, Burr lists attention to detail, an inquisitive nature, a love of all varieties of food, and a kind of sixth sense when it comes to sniffing out food worthy of a Michelin star. “They need to feel the whole thing, to know when there’s talent there, and detect that there’s ambition or potential [in a chef] to follow. We don’t want them to ever miss out on star potential.”
But don’t expect the selection process to be easy. Candidates have to undergo rigorous tests of their judgement and their palate. “When we recruit an inspector, part of the process is not only the background and meeting the person,” said Burr. “We ask them to go for a meal and write a report on what they’ve observed. After that, we’ll ask them to accompany somebody within the team.”
So what are Michelin inspectors really looking for when they judge a restaurant? “For a star, it is about the food,” said Burr. “Is there a confidence here? Has the chef grasped an understanding of flavours, ingredients, pairing? What are the skill levels? Have they really tested this behind the scenes before it’s hit the menu?”
While Burr insists Michelin stars are won and lost by what’s on the plate, and nothing more, inspectors still need to focus on the whole dining experience. “We don’t just switch off to everything that’s going on around us. We’re aware of the service, we’re aware of who else is dining and the environment we’re in.”
Inspectors must be on their game at all times, but never give the game away. Discretion is key. Yet some chefs think they can spot an inspector a mile away, so how does one avoid being detected? “The vision of an old bloke sitting in the corner in a grey suit looking a bit miserable is something that’s never really happened,” said Burr. “We don’t always dine alone, but there isn’t such a stigma attached to that any more because lots of people dine out on their own anyway.”
The Michelin inspectors’ skillset is complex and varied, but there’s one attribute that’s no longer necessary: a photographic memory. “We felt we’d have to join in this business of photographing our food,” said Burr. “We were always taught to remember everything. It’s easy now, you can just take a picture.”